Front row, left to right: Christopher Putnam, Bell Creek Academy teacher; Zoe Priolo and Ethan Williams, Bell Creek students; and Charles Leadingham, Bell Creek teacher and coach. Back row, left to right: Jared Krukar, court of appeal staff attorney, and Second District Court of Appeal judges Suzanne Y. Labrit and Susan H. Rothstein-Youakim.

Bell Creek Law Academy’s teams have all been hard at work impressing as of late.

For this year’s competitions, its high school mock trial team received a case back in October 2023 involving a student suing her college after the college dismissed her for allegedly using AI to write an essay. With a set of facts, witness affidavits, rules of evidence and exhibits, they prepared arguments as both the plaintiff team and defendant team.

Their efforts did them well, as they won first place in a competition held at the Hillsborough County Courthouse on February 17, defeating Plant High School in the finals. Next, they competed in Orlando from March 7-9, representing the 13th Judicial Circuit for the Florida High School Mock Trial Competition.

Charles Leadingham, Bell Creek Law Academy director, said, “We did well. We actually did the best we’ve ever done. … We ended up sixth in the state. Which doesn’t sound impressive, but there are no classifications; every high school in the state of Florida can be in the program. … I think 18 of them were represented there.”

Leadingham explained that every team at the finals — with 12 members each at most — competes in four rounds against other schools, then the judges choose two teams to compete in the final round for the state championship.

“In addition to the trophy for placing in the state finals, Bell Creek was awarded the Team Professionalism Award and one of our students, Zoe Priolo, was voted ‘Best Attorney.’ It was a very good weekend for the Bell Creek program,” said Leadingham.

Also on February 17, another Bell Creek team took part in the bracketed Closing Argument Competition, which was open to all Hillsborough County high school students not competing in the mock trial competition. The students had to prepare and deliver a closing argument from a given set of facts in front of a panel of judges. Bell Creek students Elina Catan and Lucas Leon won first and second place, respectively.

What’s more, Bell Creek’s moot court team took part in the High School Moot Court Competition. Moot court students learn the role of an attorney representing a client in an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. For the competition, teams comprising two students were given a case packet in November 2023 and had to write a legal brief (written arguments) using case law and precedents to support their position. Bell Creek juniors Zoe Priolo and Ethan Williams argued in front of the Second District Court of Appeal judges and took the win.

Finally, Bell Creek has a middle school mock trial team.

“It is conducted a bit differently than a high school mock trial team,” Leadingham said. “In middle school, the students learn a case, divide the roles of attorneys and witnesses between the students and then video the trial in a courtroom. The video is then submitted to the state to be viewed by a panel of judges. Last year, Bell Creek’s middle school team was top 10 in the state. We will find the results of this year’s team sometime in April.”

According to Leadingham, the kinds of things Bell Creek Academy’s students have had the opportunity to do are at the law school level.

“You don’t even get to do that in college. That’s law school stuff. For these kids to get that chance is such a great thing for them,” he stated.

He added that the skills they develop, such as thinking on their feet, thinking logically, debating professionally before a room full of people and making persuasive closing arguments, can be used in not only the courtroom but also whatever profession they choose.

Bell Creek Academy is located at 13221 Boyette Rd. in Riverview. For more information, visit or call 813-793-6075.

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Taylor Wells
Taylor Wells is a relatively recently hired news reporter for the Osprey Observer, having been with the paper only since October 8, 2018. Aside from writing articles, he helps edit and upload them to the Osprey Observer site, and is always available to help other staff members in his spare time. He graduated from Saint Leo University with a bachelor’s degree in professional writing and lives in Valrico.